Dr. R.  Banerjee (Chinese and Central Asian Scholar) Dr. R.  Banerjee


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R. Banerjee


When was Manichaeism introduced to Central Asia is still a subject of speculation. While we concede Central Asia as the necessary conduit for Manichaean religion and culture to reach Chinese soil, there is also evidence of this religio-cultural movement retracing its footsteps to arrive at Xinjiang from the hinterland of China. In 755 there occurred the An Lushan rebellion against Emperor Xuanzong (reigning from 712 to 755) who fled from the capitals of Changan and Luoyang. The Tang government asked Uighur for help in quelling the rebels. The Uighur troops liberated luoyang and Changan in 757 but did not withdraw until the following year. During his stay in Luoyang the Uighur ruler Mou Yu made the acquaintance of Manichaean monks probably of sogdian origin. They must have made some impression on him, because when he vacated the city he took four monks with him. Shortly after this the Khaghan declared Manichaeism as the state religion of the Uighur empire. The whole story is narrated in the famous trilingual inscription of Karabalghasun. This is the first and only time in the history of Manichaeism that it reached such a high status of a state religion. Most of the Uighur nobles became converts to manichaeism. Archaeological discoveries and systematic studies on the cave temples in Eastern Turkistan throw considerable light on the manichaean religious and cultural activities in this region. Many Manichaean  manuscripts were recovered from Turfan. They show that Manifhaeism was widespread in Turfan during the 7th to 10th centuries. This is supported by the statement of the Arabic geographer, Tarim ibn BahralMutawadi who came to Central Asia some time between 8th and 9th centuries. He has observed that there were many followers of Manichaeism in Northern and Eastern Xinjiang. Another geographer Jahiz (9th century) has recorded that nine Uighur tribes were converted into manichaeism by the eighth century.

Some fragments of a Manichaean book written in Turkish mention that in 803 the Khan of kingdom went to Turfan and sent three Manichaean Magistrates to pay respects to a senior Manichaean cleric in Mobei. A Manifhaean hymn of the 8th century from Turfan written in Middle Persian mentions that most of the Khan's kinsmen were devoted to manichaean faith. The Manichaean manuscripts found in Turfan were written in three different Iranian scripts, viz. Middle Persian, Parthian and Sogdian script. These documents prove that Sogdia was a very important centre of Manichaeism during the early medieval period and it was perhaps the Sogdian merchants who brought the religion to Central Asia and China.

During the early 10th century Uighur emerged a very powerful empire under the influence of Buddhism with some Manichaean shrines converted into Buddhist temples. However, there was no denying the historical fact that the Uighurs were worshippers of Mani. The Arabian historian Al-Nadim informs us that the Uighur khan did his best to project Manichaeism in the Central Asian kingdom (of Saman). Chinese documents record that the Uighur Manichaean temples in Gaochang. It appears that the popularity of Manichaeism slowly declined after 10th century in Central Asia.

Manichaean art is religious in nature, and devoted to the propagation of manichaean doctrines. Mani, as it attested to by all oriental sources, was an accomplished artist, who utilized his artistic talent in decorating his canonical works using art for the popularization of his religious ideas. He despatched scribes and illuminators  along with his missionaries to strengthen evangelism. According to his own testimony: the pictures illustrating his writings were to complete the educated people's instruction, whilst rendering the message easier to understand for others. It is generally held that in the matter of illustrating his instructional treatises he adhered to the tradition which was already evolved in the Gnostic circles. There were a good many rich Jews in Mesopotamia, thus, it is quite possible that they encouraged the production of costly manuscripts, and Mani made use of them to prepare his own illustrated sermons. Being an Iranian, Mani must have been influenced by the Parthian-Syrian art idioms of Dura-Europos in the execution of his art works.

Though Manichaeism spread in many countries, the majority of Manichaean art examples have survived only in Eastern Tukistan while the folowers of this religion received a wide support from the Uighur royal families during the 8th-9th centuries. Of all the sites in Eastern Turkistan, Kharakoja seems to have been the most important centre of Manichaean activities. Manichaean art of the sites in Eastern Turkistan, Kharakoja seems to have been the most important centre of Manichaean activities. Manichaean art of the region can be divided into two broad categories, viz. the wall paintings and miniatures. Their existence and importance have hardly attracted scholarly attention. We are much indebted to the arduous efforts on the part of German explorers, A von Lecoq and his colleagues. It is from an old temple complex that A von Lecoq (a well known Turkoligist from Germany) discovered first in 1904-5 water-colour painting of a Manichaean high priest surrounded by a number of his clergy all clad in white Sacerdotal clothes characteristic of the Manichaean monastic order. The portrait of the high priest in shown in his monastic robe with a rectangular piece of embroidery covering a part of his bosom. His tall white cap is also embroidered with gold. His face is oval, nose acquiline, but eyes small and rather slanting, typical of the manner in which Chinese artists depict a Westerner. The nimbus of the figure contains the crescent and sun disc symbols. This extraordinary nimbus and the impressive costume create the impression that the figure is very important and perhaps a portrayal of the prophet Mani. As I have alluded to earlier sun and moon symbols occupy an important place in Manichaean cosmology. The discovery of this picture disproves the old theory that the Manichaeans had no churches and shrines embellished with paintings.

Another mural fragment from Khoco portrays three Manichaean women on a blueblack ground which is also a piece of fine artistic work. These three women closely resemble each other. Their hair is parted in the middle and falls over the back and shoulders. Their headgear consists of a roll of white cloth tied in a bow behind the ears. The fragmentary condition of the partings makes it difficult to ascertain whether they represent lay women or deities.

Karakhoja' (Khoco) fragments have yielded many illustrated Manichaean manuscripts distinctive by their contents as well as their artistic qualities. We may first take up here for discussion the Manichaean leaf, bearing the Berlin Museum No. Mik III, 4979. One side of it depicts a church ceremony, with a high ranking Manichaean priest in full vestments (but the picture of his head is lost). A red embroidered stole is wrapped around his neck and shoulders. The stole bears a pattern of red lozenges on white background. The priest kneels down with his right leg before a man in full armour who is probably a Uighur king with three attendants. To the priest's left two Manichaean elects stand behind in white garments along with a layman, probably an auditor.

In the foreground of the picture there is Ganesha along with the Hindu trinity consisting of Visnu in Varaha incarnation, Brahma, bearded and pot bellied, and the three-eyed Siva. Facing them on the left are seated two Iranian Manichaean gods. Below these deities the leaf is damaged but paintings of flowers and ducks can still be made out. The artist who has drawn this picture, it seems, is equally conversant with the Hindu and Manichaean pantheons. The Hindu deities depicted here correspond to their descriptions given in the Indian Shilpasastra.  The scene perhaps tries to suggest that Mani had been in India and borrowed Indian religious ideas to enrich the Manichaean pantheon which is hinted by the Manichaean tradition. Even if he was never in India, his having come into close contact with Indian culture (including Hindu deities) is beyond doubt.

The miniature on the other side of the leaf depicts a religious celebration, the famous feast of Bema commemorating the martyrdom of Mani. This celebration took place every year in the Spring, for, according to St. Augustine, Mani died in March. In the centre of the picture, there is a red dias standing on a blue carpet. In front of the dias is a three-leged golden bowl containing melons, grapes, etc. as offering. Further forward stands a table bearing loaves of wheat bread in the shape of the sun disc and crescent. Again the miniature depicts several rows of different ranks of the elect many of whom have their names written on their white robes. The auditors (the hearers or lay worshippers) by their side can be distinguished by their high conical black hats.

Equally interesting is another Manichaen leaf (bearing No. MIK III 6368) in the Berlin collection. On one side of the leaf there is a two part picture vertically by a narrow band of writing in the middle. The picture shows priests arranged in two rows, one above the other. They wear black hair and tall hats. Each priest kneels at a low desk and each has a sheet of white paper in front of him. In the background are two flowering trees, one on either side. On one of the trees sits a golden bird. The other side of the leaf shows two splendid creepers, with inscriptions in black and red ink. The top of the leaf originally contained many musicians of whom only one vina player is extant. The floral designs and beautiful colours of this fragment are worth noticing.

In addition to the above there are several other fragments from a Manichaen book in the Berlin Museum collection. One of them contains the head of a woman with a beautiful face and a white hat. While another fragment shows the head of a man with usual white hat and sharp feature of a Uighur Turk. He has a well groomed moustache and beard. This type of face occurs later in Persian miniatures  too.

These mural fragments and miniatures illustrate various episodes and ceremonies pertaining to the Manichaen faith. They throw abundant light on the rites, ritualsa and constumes of the Manichaean priests and  lay worshippers. Since the Manichaean religion is now extinct these murals and miniatures constitute a valuable source for the study of Manichaean religious life and art styles which are predominantly Iranian in character.








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